Celebrating Lincoln Elementary School

“Whatever you are, be a good one.” - Abraham Lincoln

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Not surprisingly, allusions to Abraham Lincoln are plentiful at Lincoln Elementary School. Visitors are invited to explore a log cabin, window displays share facts about Honest Abe, and quotes from our 16th president adorn the hallways. Walking around the school proves to be an inspirational journey through Lincoln’s life. At the end of my visit, however, I was just as inspired by the people who are currently living out Lincoln’s legacy in this exceptional school.

Having just celebrated President’s Day last month, I am keenly aware of the fascination children have with Lincoln’s humble beginnings. His story of success gives hope to students who struggle with their own life issues. At many schools, I have encountered teachers, like the educators at Lincoln Elementary School, who care deeply about their students. Yet I love how Lincoln’s teachers move beyond simply “caring.” These people dedicate their lives to educating children because they “believe” in them. I have often pointed out that there is a difference between caring about students and really believing they can achieve success.

This week, educators all over Indiana are handing the I-STEP test to their students. At Lincoln, the teachers have worked tirelessly to prepare these children to take that test, and they know their students will show incredible growth. However, the teachers’ belief in their students will impact so much more than the results on a standardized test. Lincoln Elementary School gives students hope for life.

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Community members and parent volunteers embrace this same belief as evidenced by the numerous adults who give of their time to invest in our future. I was delighted to hear about “Reading Buddies” who come to Lincoln to give the gift of literacy to our next generation. The number of volunteer hours invested at Lincoln Elementary School communicates an unwavering belief in the students.What a wonderful example of an entire community working together to make a difference for children.

Abraham Lincoln said, “whatever you are, be a good one.” Clearly, the teachers at Lincoln Elementary School are good at what they do because they inspire students to imagine their own futures of excellence. Thank you, Lincoln Elementary School, for living Lincoln’s legacy; today, I celebrate you!

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Celebrating 8th Grade Wisdom

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Last week, I spent an entire day working with eighth graders at Highland Middle School. I shared some of my personal life stories to reinforce the message that “You can’t change your past, but you can change your future.” I then challenged the students to think about their own life goals and encouraged them to develop a one word mission statement. The wordle above is a compilation of those words. As I watched students write their mission words, I became particularly intrigued by what was missing. Not a single student mentioned “money” or “riches” as being part of their lifelong goals. Instead, their missions were altruistic and other centered.

You sometimes hear people talk about the “next generation” with a note of despair in their voices. I wonder how much time those people actually spend with the next generation? I have recently been encouraged by interesting reports claiming that the students we are teaching now will actually rebel against their parents by fighting materialism. What a refreshing rebellion! As I taught class after class of well-mannered, enthusiastic students with enormous potential, I began to celebrate their determination to fight for happiness and love instead of money. I admired their commitment to help, dream, protect, unite, and believe. Maybe this generation will be defined more by what they do than by the titles they hold.

A great deal of wisdom resides in the youth at Highland Middle School. Realizing that most of my blog audience consists of prospective and current teachers, let’s Imagetalk about how this lesson applies to us. I have talked to many undergraduate education majors who tear up when they tell me their parents don’t want them to be educators because they won’t make enough money. So what is the underlying message from Mom and Dad? They’re saying that making money is more important than making a difference. Don’t misunderstand; teachers need to continue to fight for fair pay. Honestly, though, will it ever be “fair?” During my speeches to community members, I try to help them understand that teaching is not really a career; it is a lifestyle. We never “leave” work because we carry the needs of our students with us at all times. What we do as teachers is priceless. Does society choose to base the value of our profession on how much we make or on how much we impact the future? Reassessing the teaching profession based on the values of these students makes teachers some of the richest people in the world.

As for me, I can’t wait to get back to my classroom because that’s where my true happiness lies, and that’s where I continue to be reminded, by some very wise young people, of what really matters. Thank you, Highland Middle Schoolers, for helping me see a  future filled with people who want to help others instead of just make a buck. Today, I celebrate you!

Celebrating Whispering Meadows

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During many of my presentations, I hold up a tattered copy of my favorite bedtime story, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book. Throughout my life, this author has continued to inspire me. The first book I remember reading was Green Eggs and Ham, and Oh the Places You’ll Go continues to be a favorite graduation gift for my students. So when I was greeted by this bulletin board at Whispering Meadows Elementary School, I knew it would be a special day. No doubt, the students at this phenomenal school are “off to great places,” and I want to thank their teachers for being an integral part of the journey.

Visiting Whispering Meadows was inspiring because I observed teachers doing so much more than teaching content; they were giving their students hope. These educators are clearly helping children envision futures with unlimited possibilities. Throughout the United States, teachers feel pressure to be sure their students perform, but thankfully, at this school, the power of creativity and imagination hasn’t been forgotten in the process. Just strolling through “Triville” made me want to dream big dreams and tackle new mountains.  If more adults could spend their days walking among truffula trees like these children do every day, maybe our adult lives wouldn’t seem nearly as complicated. Which makes me think of another Dr. Seuss quote, “Sometimes the questions are complicated, and the answers are simple.” I think the teachers at Whispering Meadows have stumbled upon a simple solution to a complicated question. Everyone in our society is asking how we can best educate our youth. That’s a pretty complicated question! However, maybe the answer isn’t found in a magic program or perfect assessment. Possibly, the answer lies in rekindling the imagination of childhood. Of course, we have to be sure our students learn content, but at Whispering Meadows, I was reminded of the importance of balance.

Thank you, Whispering Meadows, for remembering that “a person’s a person no matter how small,” and for being sure those small people aren’t robbed of opportunities to dream big. Whispering Meadows, you believe in the power of imagination, and today, I celebrate you!

Celebrating Play

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play IS serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Fred Rogers

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Last week, Katy Smith, the 2012 Minnesota Teacher of the Year visited Indiana. She was a great sport as I subjected her to plenty of Hoosier Hospitality. I baked her a sugar creme pie, we ate a world famous breaded tenderloin from Nick’s Kitchen in Huntington, and I even told her various legends to help her understand the meaning of the word, “Hoosier.” Those small offerings of hospitality were a small price to pay for the inspiring message Katy brought to Indiana.

Katy is a licensed parent educator. She has the unique role of teaching parents through a state supported early childhood program in Minnesota. Katy can rattle off facts related to the importance of brain development during birth-5 years. She can tell you the rate of return on every dollar invested in early childhood, and she reminds all of us that childhood is fleeting. After spending only a few moments with Katy, you are ready to join her mission to save childhood.

As I’ve reflected on Katy’s mission, I have concluded that in society’s quest to create future geniuses, we have forgotten the genius of childhood. Pablo Picasso said, “it took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” To ensure that we don’t loose the fleeting moments of childhood, we must all look at how our children are spending their time. If their young lives are filled with TV, video games, and endless car rides to dance class, sports practices, and vocal lessons, then when do they have time to play? Research continually supports the idea that unstructured play enhances language development, social skills, intelligence, imagination, and problem solving abilities. We seem to know that’s true, yet somehow, we are missing the mark because countless children still enter school unprepared to learn. So how do we go about “saving childhood?”

I think we must first look at where we are investing our time and resources. I tell my students every year that my job is to work myself out of a job. I teach middle school reading remediation, and I wish every day that there was no need for my class. If our society could ensure that all children have enriching early childhood experiences, the need for remediation later would decrease significantly. Kindergarten teachers will tell you that they are playing catch up for many students on the very first day of school.  As a community, we need to embrace childhood and promote programs that invest in developmentally appropriate experiences in early childhood.

ImageThe Indianapolis Children’s Museum is a shining example of an organization that is committed to recapturing the joys of childhood. As part of Katy’s visit, we had the opportunity to interact with several of the researchers designing the new playscape experience for the museum. Kudos to the designers for believing that children learn through play, and thank you to the Children’s Museum for their commitment to sharing that belief with every parent who visits. A trip to the preschool classes housed at the Children’s Museum reflected the same belief system. Opportunities for exploration, imagination, and play welcomed us at every turn. ImageNo doubt, these children will enter school ready to learn. As our nation begins to have conversations about the importance of funding early childhood programs, let’s remember to also talk about educating parents and the general community as part of that initiative. We all want what is best for children. Sometimes, we just need to be reminded that it is ok to let our kids play. Today, I celebrate the wonders of play and ask you to join Katy’s mission to save childhood.

Celebrating Aboite Elementary School

Today, I start my blog by describing the end of my visit to Aboite Elementary School. I had already bonded with the incredibly personable office staff earlier in the morning, so I felt comfortable chatting with them when I signed out. I told them that Aboite  was one of the schools I regretted having to leave. I often encounter schools that have a certain “je ne sais quoi” that makes me want to stay. Usually, it is hard to identify one attribute that makes a school so welcoming. At Aboite, however, I have no doubt that it was the staff’s personalities that made a difference. Energetic educators with bright, welcoming smiles greeted me at every turn. As my eyes shifted from the teachers’ smiles to the children’s faces, it occurred to me that students are usually mirrors of their teachers. Not only were the children smiling, but they also treated each other with incredible respect.  Obviously, the students learned about that respect by watching their teachers. Without a doubt, the climate of the entire school reflected the character of the adults in the building. In keeping with this theme, let’s consider a famous quote that is particularly appropriate today.

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, as we set aside time to celebrate the work of Dr. King, I rejoice in the ability of the teachers at Aboite Elementary School to accomplish this goal. The students at Aboite are obviously intelligent, but the teachers continue to challenge them by requiring them to think intensively and critically. Add to that the already clear commitment to modeling upright character, and you end up with a school that invites you to stay a little longer. I hope I can visit you again, Aboite Elementary School, today I celebrate you!

Celebrating Deer Ridge

Image 13“Get down on the ground with them, and get those eyes in focus.” My husband is a much better photographer than I am, but I do try to remember this advice when taking pictures of children. At Deer Ridge Elementary School, the teachers reminded me that this photography advice is also applicable to our daily lives as educators.

The “get down on their level” thought occurred to me at the beginning of the day when I delivered my “celebration brownies” to the teachers’ workroom on the second floor. As I trudged up the steps, I thought about exhausted teachers making that climb every day just to get to lunch. The Image 11teachers, forever focused on the positive, just giggled when I commented on this irony and claimed they liked the exercise. While I was arranging the brownies, the bell rang, so I went out on the balcony and enjoyed a “view from above.” As I watched the children enter in an orderly fashion, everything from this perspective appeared quiet, simple, and neat.  I knew, however, that I wasn’t doing any good perched high above the students. So I did what the teachers at Deer Ridge do every day; I descended the steps determined to make a difference.

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From the moment I arrived on the “ground floor,” I knew Deer Ridge was a place where educators remember to focus on the eyes of their students. Teachers dedicated to meeting individual needs demonstrated their ability to make every child feel valued. One thing I miss about being in my own classroom this year is the opportunity to work with students I know well on an individual basis. A kindergarten teacher seemed to sense my longing to make an individual connection, so she sent Aidan over to get the rocks he earned for his good behavior. As I bent down on Aidan’s level, looked into his eyes, and listened to the pride in his voice, I thought, “this is what I need to remember to do every day in my own classroom.” Yes, Aidan, you rock, and so do your teachers at Deer Ridge because they reminded me to focus on your eyes. Thank you, Deer Ridge staff, for descending the steps every day to make a difference. Today, I celebrate you.

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Celebrating Bucket Fillers at Flint Springs

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How full is your bucket? At Flint Springs Elementary School, this question is asked often, and the last day of 2012 seems like a fitting time to reflect on the answer. Today marks the close of my official time as the Indiana Teacher of the Year. I’ve been told repeatedly that my commitments will continue, but I know the expectations will be different. At our Teacher of the Year trainings, they warned us about this day saying, “December 31st marks the end of your year of recognition, but it also begins your lifetime of obligation.” Visiting Flint Springs Elementary School helped me find a way to articulate how I intend to approach this time of transition.

The wise educators at Flint Springs use the book, How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids by Tom Rath and Mary Reckmeyer to create a climate of kindness. In the book, the main character, Felix, learns that negative words and actions empty the “buckets” of those around him. He soon discovers, however, that kindness is contagious, and when he is a “bucket filler,” he ends up feeling happy, too.

During 2012, many wonderful people filled my bucket to overflowing. Yet, throughout the year, I felt guilty knowing so many other educators deserve the same praise. The teachers at Flint Springs are perfect examples of the hard working people who warrant “bucket filling” experiences. Throughout my day at Flint Springs, I heard teachers affirming the work of their students. I wasn’t surprised because teachers are experts at praising others. However, as I admired these incredibly dedicated teachers, I wondered, “How often does someone take the time to fill those teachers’ buckets?” I know how their principal feels. When she talks about her staff, you can hear the pride in her voice, but we can’t just rely on administrators to be bucket fillers.

Which leads to my “lifetime of obligation.” In 2012, my bucket was filled. In 2013, I intend to share those drops of kindness with others. I will continue to praise and encourage my students, but I also commit myself to being a “bucket filler” for teachers. Thank you, Flint Springs, for helping me understand that my journey as the Teacher of the Year is not really ending. It is just the beginning of a lifetime of new opportunities to remind teachers that they have the most important job in the world. Happy New Year, Flint Springs, today, I celebrate you!

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